Art History – Cave Paintings

Cave art is the earliest known and perhaps least understood of all the art forms.  Some of the earliest cave art dates back from 30,000 years ago, but there true meanings and inspiration is left in prehistory and can only be speculated on by modern experts.  The art left in caves are predominantly of scenes depict hunting and being hunted, with the concepts of life and death, extinction and existence featured prominently.  Like artists of today, cave artists represented what they saw everyday, and did so with such accuracy and immediacy that the later literate societies failed to approach the scope and scale of the pictorial record produced by prehistoric artists.

Cave artists carved and painted herds of beasts and spirited specimens on cave walls and ceilings that capture the very essence of animalistic and tell of the precarious place of people in the world dominated by brutish and primitive forces.  The artists often took advantage of the natural contours of the cave surfaces so that the animal figures appear in low relief.  It is as if the natural formations of the stone suggested the particular animal forms to the artist.  The painters made these startling lifelike animals by incising, outlining, and shading them with charcoal, then adding colors mainly in reddish browns and yellow ocher shades.  The pigments were natural minerals ground to powder, then applied to the damp limestone surfaces (Fleming, 1995).  Though horses and antelopes often appear in herds, the art of grouping figures or organizing images into complete compositions seems to have been of no importance.  Anyway, since complete darkness prevailed in the caves, it was only by primitive lamps or fires that even a small part of the surface could perhaps have been seen at one time.

The reason why the cave paintings were created remains a subject of great debate.  These animals depicted may have been symbols standing for the processes of nature, and the making of such lifelike images would then become the means of understanding the world they lived in.  The caves may also have been sanctuaries for mysterious magical rituals or for initiation ceremonies for young hunters as they reached maturity and independence.  Evidence that lances were hurled at the paintings also points to primitive hunting rites.  For the cave people, art served life, art and reality were one, and the image became by proxy the animal itself.  By such exact image making, and then assaulting these images with their spears, the hunters hoped they could bring their true quarry to bay.  Other theories hold that the paintings may have constituted a record of the seasonal animal migrations or that the beasts may have been totemic figures of the various tribal families (Fleming, 1995).  Quite possibly these amazing cave images may have been created simply for the sheer pleasure of making a living likeness of the world the artists saw around them.  Though some discoveries of cave paintings have been found in southern Algeria where the Sahara desert was once green and fertile, on the Mediterranean island of Malta, and as far northeast as Siberia, but the most spectacular sites of cave art are found at Altamira, Spain, and Lascaux, France.

The painted caves of Lascaux consist of a series of interconnected caves with Paleolithic art that remained hidden from modern humans until 1940.  While the cave artists painted many animals, they did not paint many humans until much later.  However, in the caves of Lascaux there is one human image, though most of the paintings in the cave depict animals found in the surrounding landscape of the time, such as horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, aurochs, deer, lions, bears, and wolves; the Lascaux animals comprise both species that would have been hunted and eaten such as deer and bison as well as those that were feared predators such as lions, bears, and wolves (Tedesco, 2006).  The animals are depicted in profile and often in herds, while most of the time also posed in ready and energetic positions.  The animals depicted on the caves are portrayed as virile and alive, an effect achieved by the broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft color (Tedesco, 2006).  The animals are also shown mostly in perspectives that are more twisted, with the heads in profile and both horns of the animal featured dramatically.  The colors used in Lascaux consist mostly of red, yellow, black, brown, and violent, and without any brushes discovered, it is believed that the broad black outlines of the animals were applied using mats of moss or hair, or even with chunks of raw color, and the surfaces appear to have been covered by paint blown directly from the mouth or through a tube, as color-stained, hollowed-out bones have been found in the caves to support this accepted theory (Tedesco, 2006).  The attention to detail and passion with which the artist or artists in the Lascaux caves employed help make it striking even scores of millennia later.

The cave paintings offer an interesting glimpse into prehistory.  While the actual inspiration for the cave paintings remains the topic of debate, the spiritual resonance is too strong to ignore.  For an ancient spiritual man, the caves could have provided an opportunity to commune with spirits or perhaps other worlds.  While it is well know that many native cultures used caves for vision quests long into the modern times, the Paleolithic paintings may have had some similar significance to these vision questers.  Perhaps the animals in the cave would come to life, caused by the hallucinations of sensory deprivation in the cave.  They could allow the one on the vision quest to become one with the animals and perhaps transcend the early bonds of reality and lead to a greater creativity for humanity in general.  The early spark created by the cave paintings may have significantly accelerated humanity’s progress by allowing it to not only think abstractly, but also to see different realities.  Perhaps this was the birth of all religions.

While many mysteries remain concerning the cave paintings in the world, in terms of modern art, they can very well be considered installation art.  The way the paintings utilize the space of the caves could make it so, but only out of fact that this was the very beginnings of creative expression.  The more accurate description of the cave art can only be described as paintings of the highest degree, at once mysterious, monumental, and with a life that continued long after the artists.  The prehistoric cave art of places like Lascaux manages to be what all art aspires: lasting.


Fleming, William. (1995). Arts & Ideas. Ninth Ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Tedesco, L. A. (2000, October). “Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.)”. In Timeline of Art History. The

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 7 April, 2008, from shed

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